And now for something from the other side of the brain… I want to share with you a book I read this summer. It was introduced to me by my good friend and classmate, Will Schwalbe, who among other things was Editor-in-Chief at Disney’s Hyperion books and has since founded Cookstr.com.
The book is called Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It’s by Anne Lamott. It was originally published in 1994. I read it for the Instructions on Writing. I’m sharing it for the Instructions on Life.
Lamott’s guidance was extremely helpful to me as a creative inspiration, but that is precisely when I realized the entire book can be read as a linked set of metaphors. Even if you don’t have the least bit of interest in creative writing, I would still recommend this book. Let’s start with the basic conceit, lifted from the back cover, quoting the author:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’
Okay, if you don’t have a little goofy sentimentality in your outlook you can link off now and ignore the rest of this blog post, because that passage reflects the spirit of Lamott’s clear observations and confidence, encouragement without pretension, honesty and uplifting outlook. It worked for me.
Anne Lamott is not a cheerleader, more like the Burgess Meredith with the water bottle and bucket in Rocky’s corner between rounds — I’m also guessing she wouldn’t wilt if she had to slash your eye open if like Rocky it got sealed shut. She knows you are going to get hit hard, and she reminds you that you know it too. She tells you not to get distracted by that which doesn’t matter to the process of writing. Much of this she learned from her father, who was also a career writer. He taught her it was the doing that mattered, not the surrounding mechanical functions that seem like they matter.
What struck me repeatedly in Lamott’s mini-lessons was her deep understanding of process — that output of a work is not so much the full work itself, but an assembly of building blocks, one at a time, each a commitment, and only in totality something more. She does not advocate bonehead process or ridiculous formulaic mandate — this is not a how-to manual — she just wants us to care about what we are doing and accomplish it in a series of heartfelt steps. There are no shortcuts, it’s a little more each day, a continuum that adds up to a satisfying and cohesive whole. This is not breakthrough thinking, but it’s a lesson we need to learn over and over, and it’s not just about writing. Creative process is the heart of innovation. Think of all the elements that make the iPad great. If all the elements weren’t great, it would not be great. Same with a restaurant menu and wine list. Same with an office skyscraper or memorial monument. Same with a short story, same with a novel. Summary impression rests in the details, all the many tiny parts or moments — and all those details require hard thought and careful design.
Lamott is smart about this, she tells you that getting it right is not going to happen out of the gate and unnerving strides at perfection can be your worst enemy. She has an excellent descriptor for the real quality of the first drafts to which we aspire. I’ll let you discover that on your own so the word does not get scraped here. Her point is, just get the words out, work on making them better later, a layer at a time.
She also allows us not to obsess unnecessarily with locking the full road map before we explore, because again that can impede our work. How far do we need to see ahead? “About two or three feet ahead of you” is plenty she tell us, quoting E.L. Doctorow: “..writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” She says this is “right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.” I tend to agree.
There is tremendous empathy in Lamott’s world view, she offers a sense of shared experience that is reinforcing and comforting. Lamott talks about the imaginary radio station playing in your head — another colorful descriptor I will let you discover — that tells us over and over again why we can’t do something, why the work we are doing is neither good nor worth doing. Learning to turn off that radio is our key to moving forward, we all hear it from time to time, but when it becomes perpetual, that is when our ability to create interesting work stops completely.
Lamott is just so honest and clear about all the factors that stop us from moving forward because she not only has experienced them, she continues to experience them. She does not position herself as a guru or weekend seminar success evangelist, but simply as someone who can reflect on problems of creativity because she deals with problems of creativity endlessly in her own life. She is even more honest in telling us that no one can make these problems go away once and for all, certainly not with any form of temporal success. All we can do is know that these obstructions will always be there, so we must embrace confronting them. Sometimes it really is good to know that none of us are experiencing roadblocks on our own, the fact that someone like Lamott tells you she is experiencing what you are experiencing is precisely the empathy that builds strength and resistance because the experiences are shared, bad and good. Her humility is reinforcing and refreshing and uncompromisingly inspiring.
“Bird by Bird” is not a long book, it can be read if you wish initially in a single sitting, but it is the kind of book you will find yourself coming back to for this chapter or that, this phrase or that. Lamott writes with good humor, even when she tackles very difficult and personal matters of her own life and those around her. The more I think about her framework, the more I am convinced it is much more broadly applicable then perhaps she even considered. I see the guidance as useful in company life, in financial life, in family life, in political life, and in government life. All of these require effective process to get them right, there are no shortcuts, and the rewards can be the smallest where the challenges are the greatest. That does not mean the rewards aren’t meaningful, but it is the context of those rewards and the expectations that one sets for success that truly inform us when we are steering toward a final draft.
How do you get from idea in your head to finished manuscript? The same way you build a company. The same way elegant software libraries become paradigm defining customer experiences. The same way we fix the economy and replace our government leaders with people who want to work on behalf of the people instead of themselves. Process. Commitment. Focus. Humility. Honesty. Bird by bird by bird by bird…